Student Power: The Story of Real Food in the California State University System

November 26, 2019
Teaser Image: Student Power

At Real Food Challenge, we believe that change comes from the bottom-up, whether that be a change in an institution’s food policy or shifting dining’s dollars towards community-based producers. Time and time again, students on the ground have been the driving force behind the changes towards a just and sustainable food system within institutions of higher ed.


The California State University (CSU) system is no different. CSU students have taken leadership, pushing their statewide campus system to use their institutional purchasing power towards food justice and sustainability.

Students Win

In 2013, student leaders from Real Food Challenge heard that the CSU system-wide sustainability policy was in the process of being updated. At the time, the draft did not include language around food.  Students from different CSU campuses came together to change that. They started by writing a report to explain why food should be included in the policy and the impacts of both the CSU system and its food purchasing has on California as a whole.  This core group of committed students then organized online petitions, wrote letters to each CSU trustee, and spoke at several Board of Trustee meetings advocating for real food.  

Blog Image: Student Power

Through the students’ initiative and hard work, the policy passed in May 2014 with clarity on the standards to be used for the tracking and reporting of food purchases across the CSU system. The CSUs committed to each of their campuses reaching 20% real food - Local & Community based, Fair, Ecologically Sound, and/or Humane - by 2020. Each campus would track its progress using the Real Food Calculator. It was an incredible achievement to put food into the conversation about sustainability! 

The following academic year, this core group expanded to include representation from even more CSU students who focused on supporting the implementation of the policy. The students reached out to the CSU Chancellor’s Office to collaborate on this work, but the students received no support. This effort for implementation was championed by students and continued on despite the lack of support from the Chancellor’s Office:


“Since 2014, we have had minimal communication with the Chancellor’s Office despite our various effort[s] to set up meetings or phone conversations. We took it up amongst ourselves to draft an admin manual because many schools were seeking some sort of support and thought that this would be a good way to offer it at the moment. We also offered this manual at CHESC (California Higher Education Sustainability Conference).”                                                                                                                                       - CSU Student


Students at nine different CSU campuses worked with Real Food Challenge to track their campus’s food purchasing through the Real Food Calculator as well. 


“And still with no luck with system-wide support from the Chancellor’s Office, we decided to do our own research on dining halls across CSU. Most recently we were able to re-establish communication with [the] CO in particular, with the new sustainability manager. With the new manager there is more support, but still slow progress of implementation.”                                                       - CSU Student


Implementation was now turning out to be another campaign in it of itself. To continue putting pressure on the Chancellor’s Office and to tap into a centralized network of students, the core group of CSU students worked with the CSSA (California State Student Association) Board of Directors to pass a Resolution Supporting Real Food Systems in the CSUs in 2017. In 2018, Real Food Challenge took the initiative to convene a multi-stakeholder CSU Food Systems Working Group (FSWG) to coordinate the policy implementation and released a report evaluating where the CSU system is at in reaching its policy goals around real food. 


At the Chancellor’s Office, a new sustainability program manager was onboarded and CSU students were able to re-establish communication on how to work together on implementation. However, this did not bring good news or a renewed effort to implement the policy. CSU students and Real Food Challenge learned that the Chancellor’s Office was updating the sustainability policy. 

Blog Image 2: Student Power

Behind Closed Doors

To our disappointment, the language surrounding real food, its goals, and efforts for any cross-campus collaboration was taken out. It became clear that the Chancellor’s Office would not stand by their commitments even while CSU students were continuing their real food research and procurement efforts at their campuses. Real Food Challenge reached out to the Chancellor’s Office directly in the summer of 2019 to discuss the future of the CSU Sustainability Policy. Despite our efforts, we haven’t been able to get a clear update on a more recent draft, where the update process is at, or a timeline of when this process would be completed.

Real Food Challenge’s main priority has always been to support students and their energy around real food. We’ve continued to work with student researchers at their campus and have convened the CSU FSWG’s Student Caucus to provide support and a network for students who have been implementing the Sustainability Policy. We see this as our main priority coming into the 2019-20 school year and will continue to facilitate the Student Caucus while supporting the research that is already happening at the campus level. 

However, the implementation of the CSU Sustainability Policy is under the purview of the Chancellor’s Office along with facilitating the cross-campus collaboration that it takes to meet the policy’s goals. We urge the Chancellor’s Office to meet the efforts made by students and Real Food Challenge by maintaining the real food language in the Sustainability Policy and supporting its implementation by taking a role in facilitating the CSU Food Systems Working Group.

Students have done their due diligence (and more) to build a just and sustainable food system in California. Now, the administration needs to step up and meet these students halfway. The story of real food in the CSUs isn’t over yet. 

One thing is clear - student power has driven this movement in the CSUs. That is something Real Food Challenge will continue to support so students in the Cal State system now and in the future can realize a food system that they want to see.

If you have any questions or are interested in learning more specifically about the CSU Student Caucus, please reach out to tina@realfoodchallenge.org. We are always looking to share the Caucus with other students to foster system-wide collaboration on real food research and procurement. 

Community of Support:
Rosie Linares-Diaz
eli tizcareño
Jessica Gonzalez
Clement Tsang
Stephanie Yee
Ben Ta
Monica Martinez
Megan Laird